Wikipedia:Writing better articles/Establish context

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Supporters of the "establish context" rule include: Jimbo Wales, Larry Sanger, LDC, Tim Shell, Linus Tolke, Janet Davis, drj (strongly), Koyaanis Qatsi, GWO, Damian Yerrick, tbc, AxelBoldt, JHK, Enchanter, Tarquin, Rotem Dan (strongly), 168... (strongly) Neutrality (strongly)

Opponents include: 24

24 - no one does this. Look at ontology, the worst example I know. People just say "this is that" and then proceed... some of the first paragraphs bother to set up context, but not many. So I don't like this as a rule, although I do it wherever I can.

Establish Context[edit]

Originally at Wikipedia talk:Manual of Style--Archive1

Some things that might need to be in here:

  • Create context: many articles assume that the reader already knows the field in which the term is used; this is especially true for articles regarding computer science and mathematics. These should included some reference in their introduction sentence to the field, such as "In mathematics ..." or "In the field of computer science, ..."
  • Links can be used to explain a term, but not for acronyms or abbreviations the reader cannot be expected to know. So "Central Processing Unit (CPU)" on first occurrence.


I agree with both. Especially the first, which I broke too often in my youth. On that subject, note that we can say something more specific than "In mathematics" (if the subject is truly thus restricted), such as "In topology". We can even say "In homotopy theory", even though most people have no idea what the heck homotopy theory is, because they can click on the link to find out. But we still need some context. — Toby 13:04 Sep 24, 2002 (UTC)

In that case, I'd prefer something along the lines of "In the mathematical field of topology,...". In that case, both mathematicians (but not topologists) and complete layman can get an idea what the topic is about.
Well, I do have a lot of articles that say "In topology and related branches of mathematics", since the basic ideas of topology are widely used in other branches. But how does it work for homotopy theory? "In the mathematical field of topology's subdiscipline of homotopy theory"? We could say "In the mathematical field of homotopy theory", since mathematicians know that homotopy theory is topology and nonmathematicians only want to know that it's math.
OTOH, consider "In the mathematical theory of buildings". Had I read that last year, I'd have had no ideas what buildings are in math; they're not so well known. I would have understood "In the group theoretic theory of buildings", but then the nonmathematicians would be lost. So we would only have complete context given for everybody by saying the loquacious "In the mathematical theory of buildings, used in group theory".
Anyway, the point of this note is to say that giving complete context will sometimes be quite wordy. But I do agree that we should give as much context as concise sentence structure allows. So basically I agree with you. — Toby 13:40 Sep 24, 2002 (UTC)
BTW, I thought topology had something to do with geography? Jeronimo
I thought that this was the same as topography, but the OED disagrees. Now who wants to go through 93 links to Topology and disambiguate them? — Toby 13:40 Sep 24, 2002 (UTC)
At first sight, they're all right (just did a checking of the page titles, and looked at those I was least sure of) Andre Engels 13:46 Sep 24, 2002 (UTC)
Just stepping in to point the way to the policy page Wikipedia:Establish context -- maybe add all these ideas there & move this talk to its talk page? -- Tarquin
I'd say do it the other way round. This page collects all kind of style guidelines, so we should include it here. That way it is easier to get an overview for new - and old (I still find new Wikipedia guideline pages) - users. Jeronimo
My idea was that this page will need splitting at some point anyway. If guidelines on this page already have pages elsewhere, we might as well use the other pages & link to it from here. -- Tarquin
I agree with Tarquin on this one. When I did the first draft of MOS, I assumed there would be separate pages on layout and on scientific articles and suggested separate pages on hairy subjects like tables. There's a list of other pages at the bottom (the only thing left of the "old" MOS). I think we should keep the MOS simple and unimposing and put the philosophy and special cases on links. Ortolan88
Hmmmmm. One of the problems I have with this is that, as so often happens, the two articles start to live separate lives. However, at the least, these style guidelines should be mentioned, a link will explain the specifics and the ideas behind it. Jeronimo
I agree with Ortolan88. This should be like Wikipedia:Naming conventions in that regard. — Toby 09:03 Sep 27, 2002 (UTC)
Yes, that's probably the best. We should take care however that both pages state the same, and link to each other. Jeronimo
They seem to be keeping things together with the naming conventions page, but it probably helps that the subsidiary pages' names have the format [[Wikipedia:Naming conventions (...)]]. Should we do similarly here? That is, if we adopt a previously existing style page as a subsidiary page to the MoS, then should we rename it [[Wikipedia:Manual of Style (...)]]? — Toby 01:43 Sep 29, 2002 (UTC)
Sounds reasonable to me. We could do the same thing with the talk page and stash all that maundering about hectares and poods and versts and furlongs out of the way. Ortolan88 01:49 Sep 29, 2002 (UTC)
I was planning on moving dates, numbers and units onto a separate page once the orders of magnitude links are all ready; the relevant talk would be shunted across too -- Tarquin 08:45 Sep 29, 2002 (UTC)

Is it always wrong to begin an article with a brief quotation? I have included a number of them, always italic'd and set off, before the main intro text, as an attempt to provide an immediate cultural reference and context. A number of other respected Wikipedians say that it is wrong, wrong, wrong to include them, and cite this guideline as justification.

Admittedly, the articles I begun or added them to are probably not the most solemn articles. Many of them come from the stock character pages, which have been a minor project of mine. Here cultural references are particularly important and the subjects deal with popular entertainments. I see the quotations myself as establishing immediate context by providing a point of reference; look at the history of mad scientist to see what I mean.

There are other articles, like Lizzie Borden and Old King Cole, where the article's only real subject is a quotation (again, look at the histories); to begin the article with biographical boilerplate, or anything other than the popular rhymes which are the only reason these articles exist, strikes me as to begin with weak and mostly irrelevant material.

If the sense of the community is that these introductory quotes are always wrong, I will move or remove them. I'd just as soon hear from people other than those who have been taking them off, though, as to whether these things are really wrong or not. -- IHCOYC 15:40, 21 Aug 2003 (UTC)

I like those introductory quotes. It makes the articles lively. Good work! -- Viajero 20:21, 25 Aug 2003 (UTC)
I've no objection to them. Lots of books have chapters beginning this way; while it's not a very encyclopedia-like practice, as long as they're pertinent to the subject or are explicitly about the subject (as is the one on Lizzie Borden), they're fine with me. Actually, it seems weirder to have them out in the middle of the text without any explanation (like the one on Mad scientist). -- Wapcaplet 23:42, 25 Aug 2003 (UTC)

From the Village pump, 29 August 2003:

Stating the basics[edit]

Move to Wikipedia talk:Establish context

This is mentioned elsewhere, but I think it's worth reminding the collectivity of it: remember to state the obvious -- or rather, remember that that is obvious to you is not so to the average reader. I had to add this to the start of the new article on the Ford Thunderbird: The Ford Thunderbird is a car manufactured in the USA by the Ford Motor Company. -- the authors did not stop to suppose that the reader does not necessarily know it's a car. This ties in with news style and the 5Ws. -- Tarquin 17:23, 22 Aug 2003 (UTC)

Ah, that one was mine. One forgets, also, that a reader might not have arrived from a related page and therefore have context. The word 'car' DID appear a sentence or two later, though, so it's not that it was never mentioned, just not probably as soon as it might have. What I did utterly forget to mention was this was a vehicle by Ford USA; as a transplanted Brit myself, you'd think I would know better than being so americentric, but clearly not! That's why second pairs of eyes help, to catch the first author's assumptions. -- Morven 06:26, 23 Aug 2003 (UTC)
Agreed. Pretend an alien anthropologist from Alpha Centauri somehow understands English, and is reading Wikipedia to learn about humans. You can't assume anything. -- Wapcaplet 19:37, 22 Aug 2003 (UTC)
I agree with Tarquin, I am not sure whether you do, it may be irony. - Patrick 20:43, 22 Aug 2003 (UTC)
Irony? I think the word you want is sarcasm. And no, it's not :-) -- Wapcaplet 00:19, 23 Aug 2003 (UTC)
Okay, we agree then that stating the basics is good (some people disagree and object against sentences like "A female child is called a girl, a male a boy." and "Sleeping is typically done lying in a bed"). - Patrick 06:56, 23 Aug 2003 (UTC)
There is a difference between including the necessary basic information as suggested by Tarquin and treating your reader like a moron. Everyone knows that one sleeps in a bed; not everyone knows what a Thunderbird is. -- Viajero 09:36, 23 Aug 2003 (UTC)
The alien anthropologist from Alpha Centauri does not. - Patrick 09:41, 23 Aug 2003 (UTC)
Of course he does! He understands English. He couldn't have learned it without acquiring a certain amount of basic information, like what a bed is for. -- Viajero 10:03, 23 Aug 2003 (UTC)
He may know what it is (seen it, felt the soft surface), but not what it is used for. - Patrick 10:16, 23 Aug 2003 (UTC)

I think a better rule of thumb than imagining your audience is from Alpha Centauri may be to imagine that our civilization is destroyed utterly, and our descendants are fortunate enough to uncover an operational Wikipedia while digging through the ruins. We have so much trouble learning about the basic details of ancient civilizations because their writers generally failed to state the obvious... let us not make the same mistake. --Nelson 13:28, 23 Aug 2003 (UTC)

This scenario is just as ludicruous as the previous. How do we know, for example, what the ancient Greeks reallywrote about since virtually all their manuscripts were filtered by medieval monks? And a lone server running Wikipedia under the ruins of our civilization??? Get real! How about writing for an audience of people with high-school educations? That would imply an assumption of basic knowledge of common things, such as what a bed is for and why people go the beach, and behoove us to write about matters of depth and complexity, ie the arts and sciences, and current affairs. -- Viajero 17:50, 24 Aug 2003 (UTC)
You can't assume that people know "why people go the beach". I agree the bed thing is stupid though. Angela
We can still write about matters of depth and complexity, while still defining obvious things. Viajero, I think the operational Wikipedia server buried under the ruins (and the anthropologist from Alpha Centauri) are merely thought experiments. They should not be taken seriously :-) But consider what we are writing here: a record of human knowledge. If these are things that "everyone knows", then it makes sense (to me) that they be included in such a record. I've created Wikipedia:State the obvious in order to expand this idea a bit. Feel free to comment. -- Wapcaplet 19:22, 24 Aug 2003 (UTC)
Wapcaplet, basically I agree with your ideas. In the course of editing articles I've added quite a bit of informtion particularly to the opening paragraphs, defining the context, which, I agree, is vital. It is amazing how US-centric some of the pieces are! As such, I am all for stating the basics, defining the context, and so on, but always with a distinction between basic information and mundane details. I don't quite know how to define this distinction, only I know it when I see it. A certain user here has a propensity for filling articles with mountains of trivial information which make articles read like easy-readers. What is important? Historial/biographical/technical/statistical information of course, but also some sense of why something is important. For me, this doesn't include explaining, for example, that a towel is used to dry oneself. That's what you learn at home or at school as a kid; that's not what you turn as an adult (young or old) to an enclyclopedia to learn about. The idea that all knowledge belongs in an encyclopedia is a mistaken one; a good editor makes reasoned choices, I think, between basic, vital, and trivial information. -- Viajero 18:59, 25 Aug 2003 (UTC)
I have used wikipedia to learn a lot about maths, programming concepts and internet memes. I add my support for the following statement completely
Agreed. Pretend an alien anthropologist from Alpha Centauri somehow understands English, and is reading Wikipedia to learn about humans. You can't assume anything. -- Wapcaplet 19:37, 22 Aug 2003 (UTC)

Some of the mathematical articles went "straight in", and lost me in the flavour paragraph.

I have noticed that wikipedia has an unofficial style: the first paragraph and userbox are where you learn wat is going on, and below this we have the main article. This makes the article accessible to everyone without "dumbing down" on the article. --Gigitrix (talk) 18:29, 16 January 2008 (UTC)[]

For/against ordering[edit]

From Village Pump 10th September 2003 I'd like to propose a new addition to the Wikipedia style, and I'm not sure where else to suggest it. What I would like to see is a guideline that in any article, if there is more than one point of view, descriptions of the article subject come first, and arguments against it come later. So when I went to an article on Global Warming, say, I got a description of Global Warming first and objections to it later. Likewise when I go to Creationism I should find out what creationists believe first, and only then any reasons why people might think they are wrong. DJ Clayworth 20:49, 27 Aug 2003 (UTC)

Sounds reasonable to me. Apart from the fairness issues, it makes the article more comprehensible, as it's rather difficult to contextualize arguments against a position without first having explained the position. In fact, this is my major complaint with the reverse ordering some articles currently have -- they seem to present the arguments as if they're talking to someone who already is familiar with the subject, and I have to read further to find out what it was they were actually talking about. On the other hand, if it's a controversial topic, the intro should mention this; it's just the specific objections that should be left for later in the article, not the fact that there are objections in the first place. --Delirium 20:58, Aug 27, 2003 (UTC)

Proposal to consolidate advice on writing better articles[edit]

At present there are many articles in the Wikipedia namespace that seek to give guidance on how to write better articles. I propose consolidating these into a much smaller number. On User:Jongarrettuk/Better writing guide I propose how these could be consolidated. The proposal is not to change advice, just to consolidate it. If I have inadvertently moved what you consider to be good advice that is currently in the Wikipedia namespace, please re-add it. I'm hope that the proposal to merge all these articles, in principle, will be welcomed. Of course, it may be preferred to have 2, 3 or 4 inter-connected articles than just one and would welcome advice on how this could be done. (In particular, perhaps all the guidance on layout should be spun off into one consolidated article on layout.) I'm also aware that putting lots of different bits of advice together may throw up anomalies or bits that people now disagree with (including bits that I myself disagree with:) ). I ask for support for the consolidation. Once the consolidation has happened, the advice can be changed in the normal way. Please feel free to improve on the current draft consolidation, but don't remove or add advice that is not currently on the Wikipedia namespace. If all goes well, I'll add a new Wikipedia:Guide to writing better articles page on the 19th, though maybe some bits of the new article will need to be phased in over a longer period. I'll also take care to preserve all the archived discussion in one place. jguk 19:44, 11 Nov 2004 (UTC)

Project page[edit]

Why is this a talk page for a project page which does not exist? Hyacinth 21:47, 4 Jun 2005 (UTC)

This was once Wikipedia talk:Establish context, and at one point Wikipedia:Establish context got integrated into the guide to writing articles. --Joy [shallot] 16:33, 25 June 2006 (UTC)[]